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  • Writer's picturePaul and Teresa Lowe

Yosemite National Park– Ranger Shelton, a Champion of the Buffalo Soldiers

By Paul and Teresa Lowe -

This place we call America is universally recognized as a most beautiful land with many superlatives, but perhaps few places in this country inspire wonderment quite like California's picturesque Yosemite National Park. Do You Know the rich history of the park, and that its early survival was greatly dependent upon the bravery of 500 or so African Americans - the Buffalo Soldiers. Shelton Johnson is a man who knows plenty about this particular military unit. (

Park Ranger Shelton Johnson has made it part of his mission in life to share the many stories, the work and legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers. At Yosemite Park's Village Visitors Center he shares immense knowledge about African Americans in California and in the park. Unfortunately very little truth has been taught in schools about the development of the American West and the many fine contributions of black people.

National Park attendance observations suggest the number of people of color who visit each year is less than 2 percent. This is something Ranger Shelton says is “sadly disappointing given that descendants of the 500 Buffalo Soldiers who protected the Sierra Nevada region must number in the thousands today, and that coming to Yosemite National Park should be like a homecoming for them."

Ranger Shelton, as he's affectionately known in the park, and Ranger Scott Gediman, the Chief Marketing, and External Public Relations officer for Yosemite and many other park professionals are advocates of diversity in the park. They encourage children and parents, and especially people of color to visit Yosemite National Park regularly. Shelton says "there is much to see and much to learn here-people should enjoy a spiritual connection to nature's landscape, waterfalls, the sunrise and sunset.”

Shelton regularly hosts re-enactment duties of the Buffalo Soldiers. He portrays horse soldier Sergeant Elizy Bowman of Troop “K” dressed in the uniforms of the last century. Shelton also plays flutes and other instruments of the soldiers and native people of California. The ranger's classes are part of the park's living history presentations.

Teresa and I have enjoyed the great pleasure of being in Ranger Shelton's company a few times - sharing wonderful conversations with him. We and others always learn something new.

Did you know the initial trail to the top of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park, was built by Buffalo Soldiers. Also, very few people know that Colonel Charles Young was the first African-American park superintendent appointed to Sequoia National Park in 1903. Sequoia Park - located east of Visalia - is home to the largest trees in this country.

In the late 1800's to early 1900's the dangerous job of confronting and evicting poachers, protecting the new national parkland of Yosemite, its meadows, the timber, the waters and the lives of Native and Spanish speaking peoples, as well as assuring the peaceful co-existence of White ranchers and the few Black farmers of the area, all fell under the authority of the U.S. Army's segregated African American Calvary unit - the Buffalo Soldiers.

The presence of these highly skilled soldiers brought both praise and contempt. Some white ranchers didn't want to be told what to do by any Black person. There was also a sense of law and safety present in the Yosemite wilderness that was provided by these Black soldiers.

Folklore stories say the monicker of 'Buffalo Soldier' was given to the men by 'plains Indian nations.' The term was a way of comparing the stubborn courage and strength of the curly or nappy hair Black soldiers to that of the powerful wooly head of the American bison or buffalo.

Shelton, who is of African-American and Native American ancestry, was born in 1958 in Detroit. His college graduate studies are in music and poetry. He's been a ranger for the national park service since the 1980's. Shelton says that it was a summer job at a hotel and an encounter with a bison on a road in Yellowstone National Park (Montana) that sparked his love of nature and wildlife. He answered his calling and then joined the team at Yosemite National Park.

Ranger Shelton is to a lot of folks a master orator storyteller and historian hero. He has been awarded more than a dozen national and state honors for his work and dedication. He has written several books. He has been featured in numerous documentaries, including award winning filmmaker Ken Burns' PBS series about national parks. Shelton was a sensation with viewers and historians and even President Barack Obama. Shelton was invited to the White House for the screening.

Who can forget the time Ranger Shelton hosted media mogul Oprah Winfrey and her friend Gayle King (CBS Morning News Anchor) during their hilarious camping adventure in Yosemite National Park in October of 2010. It's one of Oprah Winfrey's highest rated shows ever. (

Brief History of Yosemite Park

The foundation for what is now Yosemite National Park was set in motion by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 with a land grant to protect the giant tree forest and waters from commercial destruction. (

What is now the Yosemite Valley was originally inhabited by people who called themselves the "Ahwahneechee." This group of people, who date back as long ago as 6-thousand years, coexisted peacefully with another indigenous people in the area known as the Mono Lake Pauite.

The word we know today as Yosemite once had the meaning of 'those who kill.' That term was attached to a particular group of people who occupied another large part of the region and fought vigorously to guard their land from U.S advancement. They were led by the man known as Chief Tenaya. That is a name that you still see today in many parts of central California and in the Sierra Nevada.

In 1906 President Teddy Roosevelt at the urging of conservationist John Muir convinced Congress to have the entire Yosemite territory set aside under California special land protection. After Muir's relentless urging for even more land protections, Congress in 1916 established the National Park Service.

Today Yosemite National Park is among the most visited parks in the world. It's a place where you can still experience, what this protected land, looked like to its first people.

Ranger Shelton Johnson says, “Yosemite National Park is a window that allows you to peer into a natural world that will make you gasp with astonishment, and it all belongs to you. “I just want to share a part of what I love and this real paradise of Yosemite.”

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